2012 Conference

China and Inner Asia Session 131

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The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Performing Politics in (Post) Cold War China

Organizer: Weijie Song, Rutgers University, USA

Chair: Tani Barlow, Rice University, USA

Discussant: Tani Barlow, Rice University, USA

The panel aims to explore the pleasures and pitfalls of producing places and spaces, and performing cultural politics, evidenced in the socialist and post-socialist use and abuse of rural land and urban site, and the re-production of Maoist and Dengist legacies in post-1949 literature, feature films, documentary cinema, television drama serials, and other performance genres. Against the backdrop of the 1949 great divide, the 1976/1979 transformation, and the 1989 transition, panelists seek to examine the aesthetics and politics of high and popular culture, main melody propaganda and avant-garde experimentation, as well as intertextual and trans-genric adaptations, in terms of the (post) cold war visual and verbal envisions, revisions, and other performative practices. Tze-lan D. Sang explores how Jiang Yue and Duan Jinchuan’s 2005 documentary The Storm questions the official discourse of the land reform by revisiting the site where the Communist land reform was born, and argues that historical documentary films tread a fine line between “alternative” and “subversive” interpretations of the traumatic historical pasts. Xiaojue Wang discusses two narratives on land reforms, famine, womanhood, and family by Ding Ling and Zhang Ailing across the Bamboo Curtain to reflect on the relationship between poetics and politics, historical violence and literary representation, during the high Cold War. Examining the images of teahouse in Lao She’s three-act drama and its theatrical, film and television adaptations, Weijie Song considers the teahouse as a miniature chronotope of pre-Mao micro-politics and macro-politics, and as a warped and eventually implosive space of modern urban horrors and political morass. By exploring the visual versions and variations of Deng Xiaoping’s life stories in the last three decades, Xiaomei Chen illustrates and reveals the contradictory images of Deng, the dis/enchantement of a charismatic figure, and the re/evaluation of revolution, reform, and state politics in the changing and challenging sociocultural contexts of contemporary China.

Parasitical Counter-memory: Jiang Yue and Duan Jinchuan’s The Storm
Tze-Lan D. Sang, Michigan State University, USA

Independent documentary films from the PRC have been variously described by scholars as presenting an anti-official ideology and helping to fashion alternative publics. This essay contends that historical documentary films tread a particularly fine line between “alternative” and “subversive” interpretations of reality, as independent documentarians revisit traumatic historical pasts and attempt to unfurl social and political complexities that had previously been neatly folded up and packed away by official narrations of those pasts. As a primary example, Jiang Yue and Duan Jinchuan’s 2005 documentary The Storm will be examined. Jiang and Duan question the CCP’s official discourse of the land reform by revisiting the site where the Communist land reform was born. Interweaving interviews of land reform witnesses and participants and excerpts from both Zhou Libo's 1948 novel and Xie Tieli's 1961 adapted film of the same title, the documentary succeeds in building on the official discourse to convey the intensity and high drama of political exigencies while turning that official discourse on its head. There exists, in other words, a quasi-parasitical relationship between memory and counter-memory. Not trashing official discourse outright, Jiang and Duan instead exploit it as valuable archival material rich in verbal and visible evidence and nuances of meaning.

Famine, Femininity and Family: Performing the Land in Cold War China
Xiaojue Wang, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, USA

This paper examines two different narratives on land reforms and famine by two women writers, Ding Ling and Zhang Ailing, to reflect on the entangled relations of historical violence, feminine subjectivity, and literary representation during the high Cold War era. Ding Ling’s Du Wanxiang was the first work she published after her political rehabilitation. My reading emphasizes an uncanny anachronism in this socialist realistic fairy tale. In Du Wanxiang, a story of land reclamation in the Great Northern Wasteland, the Great Leap Forward and the resultant Great Famine have been transformed into a glorious epic of socialist agricultural modernization through a reconfiguration of womanhood and familial space. Playing on the same themes of women, family, famine, and land, Zhang Ailing in her diaporic sojourn in Hong Kong presented an absurd drama of ideological hyperbole, material scarcity, and the female ghost. Zhang’s Rice-Sprout Song, written with the sponsorship of the United States Information Service in Cold War Hong Kong in the interstices of the British colony and the two competing political regimes across the Taiwan Strait, focuses on human frailty and thus to a certain extent dwell on her unique notion of history marked by temporal discrepancies and ruins as against any historical narrative of sublime monumentality.

Teahouse, Warped Space, and the Implosion in Urban Darkness
Weijie Song, Rutgers University, USA

This paper explores the literary and visual representations of the Yutai Teahouse in Lao She’s three-act drama (1957), Jiao Juyin’s and Xia Chun’s theatrical adaptation (1958), Xie Tian’s film edition (1982), Lin Zhaohua’s theatrical version (1999), and most recently, He Qun’s 39-episode television drama released in 2010. In the long sequence of sustained and shifting images of the Teahouse produced from the socialist seventeen-year period to the post-Cold War era, the literary, theatrical, cinematic, and television drama illustrations scan and span the waning of the Manchu Empire, the failure of the Republican Revolution, and the downfall of the Nationalist regime by recapitulating and condensing the fifty-year political changes into a shrinking public space and a pessimistic miniature of old Beijing misery. The Teahouse series not only capture the political, a-political, and un-political dimensions of entertainment, education, and edification, but also stage a subtle historicist, realist, and “socialist” critique of the pre-Mao social and political morass. I argue that the constant production and reproduction of the Yutai Teahouse present and perform a symbolic and chronotopic microcosm, as well as a warped and eventually implosive space, of the modern urban horrors and darkness.

Staging Deng Xiaoping: A Wise Leader Or A Traitor?
Xiaomei Chen, University of California, Davis, USA

This paper examines eight performance pieces from the late 1980s to the 2000s on the life story of Deng Xiaoping. I argue that on the first level, performance genres such as films, television dramas, and spoken dramas that depicted the life stories of Deng seem to offer a coherent narrative of Deng as a key CCP leader of the first generation, which had carried out the Maoist legacy of socialist revolution and built China into a strong modern state. On the second level, these performance pieces portrayed Deng as a greater leader than Mao: while possessing the same wisdom as Mao, Deng had survived two downfalls caused by Mao and finally brought prosperity to China. Deng had prevailed thanks to his rejection of the core values of Maoism. There is a third level of interpretation, however, when examined with the recent scholarship on the CCP history, the memoirs, biographies and autobiographies, and especially on-line bloggers, some of these performances can be interpreted as questioning a Dengist legacy and his 30 years of reform history. Reading these performances genres together, I hope to gain a better understanding of the cultural dynamics in order to tease out contradictory representations of a seemingly “coherent” past in these genres controlled heavily by the state.